As Hong Kong police prepare to deploy their new water cannons at anti-government protests, the daughter of a South Korean farmer who died of injuries inflicted by a similar weapon three years ago warned that the supposedly non-lethal jets can be deadly even if officers exercise extreme caution.
Baek Doraji, daughter of farmer Baek Nam-gi, called on Hong Kong police to release in full the cannons’ operational guidelines for the sake of transparency, as the city’s opposition lawmakers have repeatedly demanded to no avail.
“It is not necessary for police to use this harmful weapon on citizens,” Baek, 37, said in an interview. “As far as I know, [South Korean police] have never used water cannons since my father’s accident.”
She said that, even though water cannons are supposed to be non-lethal, in reality police struggle to control what parts of protesters’ bodies they hit because the target is moving, especially during chaotic situations and at night.
In November 2015, her father was struck by a water cannon’s jet during a protest against then president Park Geun-hye, who is now serving a 24-year jail term for corruption. The farmer fell backwards, hit his head and lost consciousness. He remained in a coma and died about 10 months later. He was 68.
Hong Kong has been rocked by more than two months of violent protests that stemmed from the government’s now-shelved plans to pass a bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited from the city to mainland China, where critics have warned of the lack of fair trials.
Protesters have repeatedly thrown bricks and petrol bombs at police, who have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds.
On Monday, Hong Kong police displayed three custom-built French anti-riot vehicles before lawmakers. The vehicles cost a total of HK$16.59 million (US$2.11 million). Each boasts 15 high-pressure cannons and seven cameras. The two cannons on the roof can fire more than 1,200 litres of water per minute over a distance of 50 metres. The water can be mixed with tear gas, or dye that allows police to identify protesters after they disperse.
The force said the water cannons would be aimed only at protesters’ lower limbs, in accordance with its guidelines.
Asked about the water cannons, the police referred the Post to their comments at a Monday press briefing.
Mak Chin-ho, assistant commissioner of police in charge of operations, said at the briefing the cannons would be used when big protests cause serious injuries or death, or when demonstrations pose a serious threat to public order.
“If events are peaceful and there is no violence, there will be no need for police to deploy the vehicles,” he said.
According to Baek, South Korean police’s water cannon guidelines state that officers should shoot protesters only below the chest. But she said that at the trial of police for negligence that caused her father’s death, an officer testified they could not guarantee proper aim when operating at night.
“It’s hard to control the jets because police cannot see people clearly, and people move,” she said.
She urged the Hong Kong government to listen to protesters’ demands.
Last week, the Seoul High Court convicted Goo Eun-soo, commissioner of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency from 2014 to 2015, of negligent homicide over Baek Nam-gi’s death. He was fined 10 million won (US$8,260).
Baek said the conviction meant a lot to her family, but she still felt he should have been jailed. The court’s verdict showed that the police management who gave the order to use water cannon should be held responsible if the vehicles caused injuries or even deaths.
“The prime minister apologised to my family on behalf of the South Korean government. The police? I don’t care much about it, but they [also apologised],” she added.
Icarus Wong Ho-yin, convenor of the Civil Rights Observer, an NGO, said the city’s narrow streets would make it difficult for the police to manoeuvre the vehicles and aim only at protesters’ lower limbs.
He also doubted that officers could in reality stick to the guidelines, citing two recent cases. One was the protester who was allegedly hit by a beanbag round on Sunday, potentially leaving her blind in her right eye. The other was the officer who fired a round of tear gas into an enclosed railway station.
International guidelines state that beanbag rounds should only be fired at a person’s lower body, and tear gas should not be fired indoors.
In 1987, student Lee Han-yol, 21, was hit on the head by a tear gas canister during a demonstration in Seoul. He died after 27 days on life support.
Since that incident, South Korean police have been reluctant to use tear gas on protesters. In recent years, riot police have not used beanbag rounds or tear gas and have been equipped only with batons and long shields.
Countries further afield have also had incidents of people suffering severe injuries from water cannons. In 2016, 26 people were sent to hospital, after more than 300 were injured in North Dakota, United States, when a water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets were used on activists protesting against the Dakota Access oil pipeline. Most of those hospitalised were suffering from hypothermia, a result of being soaked by the cannon in below-freezing temperatures.
In Germany in 2010, Dietrich Wagner, a retired engineer, was blinded in his left eye and retained just 5 per cent of his vision in the other eye after being hit directly in the face by a water cannon during protests against an infrastructure project in Stuttgart.
Additional reporting by Lee Jeong-ho and Zoe Low